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New York Noise Cops Monitor City Sounds

Inspectors from Bureau of Air Resources respond to complaints and impose fines in the effort to control decibel levels. LOUD NOT ALLOWED

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The inspectors are going by the book. ``He knew about it,'' Jerry says later in his calm Greek accent. ``Most of them, they don't care.''

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It's 10 p.m., lunch time for the night shift. The next stop is a music club in the East Village, conveniently close to Katz's Delicatessen with its famous hot pastrami.

Most noise complaints in New York City are in Manhattan. Of those, the majority concern discos and other music clubs, especially at night. Before 1986 the law was vague, prohibiting only ``unnecessary'' noise. That year, the city passed a new ``Disco Law'' that set a fixed threshold of 45 decibels. If noise penetrates someone's apartment at that level, there's a fine of between $2,000 and $8,000. After three violations, the city can padlock the sound system.

In the abstract, 45 decibels doesn't seem so high; normal conversation is about that level. (An alarm clock is about 80 decibels.) Looked at another way, however, 45 decibels is like trying to sleep with somebody talking into your ear.

``Forty-five is where people get roused in sleep,'' says Thomas Faye, an audiologist who heads the Vanderbilt Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and who formerly was a member of the city's Environmental Control Board.

The persistent ka-thump from a disco is especially infuriating at three o'clock in the morning, moreover.

``It is not hazardous to hearing but to health,'' says Dr. Faye. ``It's a terrible invasion of privacy.''

That is how the people feel at 65 Second Avenue, at 4th Street. The club in the basement has been assaulting them with noise at all hours of the night. The apartment building is a cavernous old walk-up that has seen grander days. Faye says that bass sounds and drums course through the walls as though they were extensions of the instruments. ``The [building] structure becomes a loudspeaker,'' he says.

The club is called Woody's, and it's a typical New York scene bar. The college-age patrons, dressed in requisite black vamp, aren't exactly Steve's crowd. ``Living high on Daddy's money,'' he remarks. One gets the impression he wouldn't mind finding a violation at Woody's tonight.

On the second floor, however, the biggest commotion is a domestic squabble. To the chagrin of the tenants, the noise from Woody's isn't as loud as it usually is. ``This is totally atypical,'' says a wiry man with gray curly hair.

It's a common occurrence on the noise beat, a little like the car that won't start except when the mechanic is checking it.

It turns out that the woman who filed the complaint had announced the inspection at a tenants' meeting, and Woody's had gotten wind of it. The manager acknowledges to Steve later that he just happened to turn off one speaker tonight. The woman will have to file another complaint.

The inspectors are disappointed, too. Woody's looked like a violator. It's after midnight, and the banter in the car is starting to flag. The last appointment is uptown on East 93rd Street. It's a doorman building, and Steve instinctively runs a comb through his hair as he enters the elevator.

The apartment has a carpeted hush that suggests financial comfort. A doctor's wife is explaining that the bar directly below, called T.G.I. Friday's, intrudes on this tranquility with an awful racket. But once again, the noise isn't here when the inspectors arrive. Everyone sits awkwardly for a while, on a couch that looks big enough to hold a baseball team. ``Sometimes we stay an hour, an hour and a half,'' Jerry says later. ``Always, we must be very polite.''

They have a better way of handling these problems in Athens and other European cities, he says on the way out. Clubs must get approval for a specific noise level before they open. ``The police are very tough there,'' he says. ``Here, [the cities] just want the money.''